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SC prisons chief gets national award for agency turnaround

Prison Director Honored
Jeffrey Collins/AP
South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling speaks at a ceremony on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the Manning Reentry / Work Release Center in Columbia, S.C. Stirling has been honored for turning around South Carolina’s prisons with the Tom Clements Innovation and Achievement Award from the national Correctional Leaders Association. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, file)

South Carolina's prison director has won a national award for turning around an agency that was near the bottom in the county in funding, salaries and the rate of inmates who return to prison.

Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling was honored Saturday by the Correctional Leaders Association for the changes in South Carolina prisons over his eight years of leadership.

Stirling took over an agency where the starting salary for officers was about $26,000, funding was in the bottom five states in the nation, inmates ended back in prison in one of the higher rates in the country and one in three new prison guards quit within two years of being hired and trained, wrote former Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint in nominating Stirling for the award.

Starting salaries are now around $36,000 before any chances to earn overtime and South Carolina has moved to the top of states in recidivism rate.

Stirling also has support from both Democrats and Republicans who backed his nomination for the Tom Clements Innovation and Achievement Award, named for the Colorado prisons director killed by a former inmate in 2013.

"Bryan has the trust and confidence of Statehouse leaders across party lines. He has leveraged that trust and confidence to create respect and admiration" for those who work in state prisons, Democratic state Sen. Dick Harpootlian wrote.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster cited Stirling's never ending efforts to get federal permission to jam cellphone signals in prison to prevent inmates from continuing to arrange criminal activities from the inside and efforts to stop contraband from getting into prison by installing nets so bundles can't be thrown over fences into prison yards.

"South Carolina is a safer place because of Director Stirling's strong leadership and collaborative efforts," McMaster wrote.

Stirling's eight years have had problems. There was a rash of inmates killing other inmates early in his tenure and in 2018, the deadliest U.S. prison riot in 25 years saw seven inmates killed at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.

Stirling blamed contraband cellphones for the gang battle over territory. He increased efforts to stop phones from getting into prisons and got permission to send gang leaders to prisons out of state where they could no longer lead their groups.

"If Bryan or (the Corrections Department) makes a mistake, he will admit it and move forward to fix it. This is the real key to Bryan's success: his character and transparency," Harpootlian said.

Stirling kept the confidence of lawmakers, who trusted him with nearly $100 million to make security updates and improvements to prison buildings in areas like air conditioning as well as tablet computer s that well-behaving inmates can use to watch movies or call family, which help their quality of life too, according to his nomination.